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Regional Conflict and Compromise

Slavery and the Constitution
The Missouri Compromise
Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Dred Scott Decision


...It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race....

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia 1800 Source: PBS. org

Slavery and the Constitution

Slavery ad
A flyer published in 1795 seeks the return of a runaway slave in New Jersey. Image Source: Special Collections & University Archives , Alexander Library, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

The debate over the morality and economic role of slavery began well before the Revolution. In Pennsylvania, the influence in the government of the colony of the Society of Friends, whose adherents were known as Quakers, was reflected in emerging concerns over the presence of slavery. As early as 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown near Philadelphia protested slavery in a resolution that condemned the "traffic of Men-body." While some Quakers owned slaves, slavery provoked religious debates not only over the moral propriety of owning another person, but also over its worldliness, with some arguing that the possession of slaves as property was inconsistent with the Quaker precept to live simple lives devoid of luxury. It was not until 1758, however, that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends made buying or selling a slave a bar to leadership in the Quaker meetings, and in 1774 it became cause for being disowned or banished from the Society.

The intellectual arguments for slavery's abolition also were strengthened by the writings of John Locke and others arguing for the recognition of natural rights of all men--the same positions also used to justify the revolt against the British Crown--and the mid-1770s saw additional abolitionist movements along with the conflict that would lead to the Revolutionary War. In 1775, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage was founded and later reorganized as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, with Benjamin Franklin later assuming its presidency. In 1780, Pennsylvania enacted the "Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery", the first law in America mandating an eventual end to slavery, allowing any slave born after March 1, 1780, to be freed at the end of twenty-eight years.

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, issues related to slavery also were the subject of debate and compromise. But the prevailing sentiment of the framers of the Constitution was to avoid the direct confrontation on slavery that would jeopardize the larger goal of creating a strong national union and government. When the Pennsylvania Abolition Society asked Benjamin Franklin, one of the Sociey's members and later its president, to forward a petition to the Convention calling for the abolition of slavery in the new document, Franklin declined to submit the petition to his fellow Convention delegates, suggesting "...that the memorial, in the beginning of the deliberations of the convention, might alarm some of the Southern States, and thereby defeat the wishes of the enemies of the African trade." In the Convention debates, James Madison argued that a national union required that both slave-state and non-slave-state interests be protected, and proposed, unsuccessfully, that the representation in one house of Congress be based on each state's free population only and the representation in the other house be based on each state's total population including all slaves.

The Constitution's final draft included four specific provisions dealing directly with slavery: (1) three-fifths of the slave population was to be considered in apportioning direct taxes and representation in the U.S. House of Representatives (Article I, Section 2); (2) any tax levied on imported slaves could not exceed ten dollars per slave (Article I, Section 9); (3) runaway slaves had to be returned to their masters "on demand" and could not be emancipated (Article IV); and (4) no amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the slave trade could be adopted before 1808 (Article I, Section 9). Additional provisions, however, while not expressly mentioning slavery, were part of the regional compromises worked out in the final document, including the indirect election of the president through electors based on Congressional representation, which strengthened the influence of the Southern states due to the counting of three-fifths of the slaves in the apportionment of their Congressional representation; prohibition of the levying of export duties by both federal and state governments, thus exempting from taxation exports produced with the aid of slaves like cotton or food products; creation of an effective veto power for the South over future amendments to the Constitution by requiring that three-fourths of the states would need to ratify all amendments; authorization for the Congress to mobilize the militia to suppress "domestic insurrections" (including the growing fear of slave revolts); and limitation of the "privileges and immunities" clause of the Constitution to "citizens", thus denying these protections to slaves and in some cases to free blacks. See generally A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution, ed. John P. Kaminski (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999). Slavery and the Constitution

The Missouri Compromise
The importance of slavery to the economies of the South greatly increased as a result of the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. Whitney's machine removed seeds from the cotton, freeing slaves from this time-consuming task and allowing much more efficient production.

cotton gin
Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney Image Source: Eli Whitney Museum


Demand for cotton surged. In 1793, the first year the cotton gin was introduced to the plantations, 180 thousand pounds of cotton were produced. Within two years, production had gone to more than 6 million pounds; by 1810, some 93 million pounds were being shipped from the South.

With the sharp increase in demand for cotton, the need for slaves to perform other tasks in the cultivation and production process also grew. The greater profitability of cotton also saw its cultivation spread to territories and states outside the old South, an expansion that also brought with it the adoption of slavery in these new areas, thus increasing the leverage of the slave states in the Congress. By 1860, there were 15 slave states compared to the six states in 1790. See Laura Bohn, The Cotton Gin and Slavery, Issues & Problems in Nineteenth Century Literature & Culture, Professor Michael Goeller, Rutgers University.

In 1819, the Missouri Territory, which allowed slavery, applied for statehood. Acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Missouri would be the first of the new territories to become a state, and its admission as a slave state would upset the equal balance between slave and non-slave states.. Concerned that the South would gain an increasing representational advantage if other western territories followed Missouri into the Union as slave states, New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to Missouri's statehood bill that would prohibit any further growth of slavery in Missouri, and would eventually set free the children of slaves born in the state when they reached the age of 25. The Tallmadge amendment passed the House but was rejected by the Senate. After extensive negotiations and debate, the issue was finally resolved through the enactment of the Missouri Compromise primarily drafted by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Under the agreement, the northern part of Massachusetts was admitted to the Union as the free state of Maine at the same time that Missouri was admitted as a slave state, thereby maintaining a balance of 12 slave and 12 free states. In addition, the legislation extended an imaginary line from Missouri's northern border at 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude, decalring that any portions of the Louisiana Territory lying north of the compromise line would be free. Finally, the act declared that fugitive slaves "escaping into any... state or territory of the United States...may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labour or service", and that, even in the free territories, "slavery and involuntary servitude ... in the punishment of crimes" was allowed.


The African-American Mosaic, Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture >>Library of Congress

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection >>Library of Congress

The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition >> Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University

Africans in America >>

John Brown's Holy War >>

Educational Tools

Slavery and Abolition, Social Movements and Culture, American Studies Program, Washington State University

Teacher's Guide: Africans in America >>

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo >> National Archives & Records Administration